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In Title Roll, Connecticut Routs Tennessee, 71-52

 Huskies
 Connecticut players celebrate the second title in six years for the Huskies. (Associated Press)
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 3, 2000; Page D1

PHILADELPHIA, April 2 – Tonight's NCAA tournament final between Connecticut and Tennessee promised the best of just about everything in women's college basketball. The best rivalry, the best coaches, the best teams, the best programs and arguably the best fans.

There was no promise, unfortunately, of a great game. None came.

Connecticut won its second national championship in six years, defeating Tennessee, 71-52, before 20,060 in unquestionably the most publicized and anticipated women's college basketball contest ever. It can now officially be called the biggest letdown, as well as the second-most lopsided NCAA final. Tonight's game at First Union Center featured No. 1 versus No. 2 – this season and during the past decade. Yet far more than one digit separated Connecticut and Tennessee tonight.

"I've done this 26 years and I never experienced anything like today," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. "We were shelled, really. . . . This was a great team tonight. No question about it, they were awesome."

Connecticut (36-1) dominated in every aspect of play, showing the might of a team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation all season. Who, though, would have figured that the Huskies' only loss this season had come at the hands of the Lady Vols (33-4), overwhelmed from the start tonight? Tennessee, seeking its fourth national title in the past five years, seemed shaken by the absence of starting guard Kristen Clement, relegated to the sideline tonight because of a sprained right ankle suffered during today's morning workout.

The game's final three minutes were contested seemingly only to see whether Connecticut's margin of victory would surpass that of Tennessee's 67-44 wipeout of Louisiana Tech in 1987 and to give Connecticut's starters a chance to take their bows and exchange joyous hugs. When the buzzer sounded, players fell into a pile near center court. The Lady Vols, without waiting to shake hands, hurried to the locker room.

"It really is an indescribable feeling to win something like this," Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma said. "The fact that we did it against a team as good as Tennessee, and that has as much tradition as Tennessee, makes this accomplishment all the more worthwhile. We know how difficult it is to beat them and how hard it is to deny them when they're playing for a championship."

Added Auriemma: "I'm sure the people at ESPN would have preferred a double overtime game won at the buzzer. I apologize for that."

From the start, the Lady Vols displayed no shooting touch, no offensive control and, seemingly, no confidence. They also committed an uncustomary crime – they seemed to panic. They had turnovers on six consecutive possessions during one ugly stretch midway through the first half, helping the Huskies take a 15-point lead just 12 minutes into the game. By halftime, the game was all but over. The Lady Vols had just five field goals on 18.5 percent shooting, 13 turnovers and 19 points – tying for the second-lowest one-half scoring total in a Final Four game.

They finished with 26 turnovers, tying for the most in an NCAA final, and shot 31 percent.

As Tennessee labored, Connecticut thrived offensively and defensively, revving its blue-and-white clad fans into a frenzy. Connecticut's two all-Americans, Shea Ralph – the tournament's most valuable player – and Svetlana Abrosimova, contributed 15 and 14 points, respectively. All eight players who entered the game in the first half scored at least one field goal. Center Kelly Schumacher's six first-half blocks broke the record for most blocks in a Final Four game. She finished with nine.

Clement, who was replaced in the starting lineup by Kyra Elzy, stood helplessly on the sideline during the game, passionately leading the cheers and occasionally leaning on a teammate or coach for support for her sore ankle.

"Ace [Clement] is obviously a starter, and it hurts to lose a starter on game day," said Tennessee point guard Kara Lawson of West Springfield High School. But "we knew we could still win the ballgame, even if we didn't have Ace. So I don't think we responded to it very well."

The buildup that preceded the game was perhaps rivaled only by the teams' last meeting in the 1995 championship, which set off an emotional rivalry between the two programs. The crowd came early and maintained a deafening din from pregame warm-ups until the conclusion, when Huskies fans took over the celebration. Though there have been other great rivalries in the women's game, they played out at a time when national television exposure and national media attention were uncommon.

If Tennessee had any hope of winning, the Lady Vols had to show a little more composure at the start of the second half than they did at the beginning of the game. They didn't. Connecticut scored the first eight points after halftime to deprive the frustrated Lady Vols of hope, taking a 21-point lead with 17 minutes left in everybody's season. During that stretch, Lawson, who finished with six points, missed her eighth and ninth consecutive shots of the night.

The Lady Vols missed 12 of their first 13 shots and 19 of their first 21. It took 16 minutes for Naismith player of the year Tamika Catchings to score her first field goal – and it was only the third of the night for Tennessee. Long before then, Tennessee's players were hanging their heads and staring at the arena floor. Catchings led Tennessee with 16 points, but she committed seven turnovers. Semeka Randall, the team's other Kodak all-American, shot 1 for 11 and turned the ball over six times.

Despite tonight's loss, Summitt, Tennessee's coach for the past 26 years, is considered the undisputed queen of coaching in the women's game, with her six national titles and more than 700 all-time victories. Since leading his team to the 1995 national title, Connecticut's Auriemma has earned recognition as one of the best coaches and promoters of the women's game.

The schools have now combined to win eight national titles – six for Tennessee and two for Connecticut. The most successful women's basketball programs in the 1990s, they seem on course to repeat that success over the next 10 years.

In the '90s, Tennessee won more games than any women's team, 334. Connecticut was second with 313.

"We are not going away," Summitt said. "I am not as old as Geno thinks I am, and I'm certainly not on my way out. We'll be back here, hopefully again next year."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company
 

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